Members of the public may now comment on an environmental analysis that seeks to assess the potential impacts of expanding operations of GCC Energy’s King II coal mine near Hesperus for at least another 20 years.
Preparing for its coal reserves to run out, GCC Energy, which has operated the King II coal mine since 2007, asked the Bureau of Land Management in 2018 for a lease to expand the mine by 2,462 acres, opening an additional 7.6 million tons of coal.
In December 2017, the BLM approved a separate request from GCC Energy to expand the mine 950 acres. The company said at the time if expansions were not approved, the King II mine would run out of coal and be forced to shut down, laying off 100 employees and cutting local tax revenue.
Before approving the proposed 2,462-acre expansion, the BLM must first conduct a National Environmental Policy Act – or NEPA – analysis to look at the potential impacts it would have on the environment. Part of that process is accepting public comment from people with concerns. Comments regarding GCC Energy’s expansion will be accepted until March 11.
The BLM said in a news release Friday that the analysis of the King II expansion will be part of an “innovative” U.S. Department of the Interior pilot project to streamline NEPA requirements. The agency is working with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
In December 2017, the BLM received flak for streamlining expansion approval when the agency said an environmental analysis was not necessary. A BLM spokesman said at the time the move was part of the Trump Administration’s vow to expedite the process for energy development.
Jimbo Buickerood, San Juan Citizens Alliance’s program manager for lands and forest protection, said Friday the Department of the Interior’s interpretation of “streamlining” has effectively been to reduce transparency and diminish public input.
Buickerood said he hopes this most recent NEPA process for King II’s expansion doesn’t play out the same way.
“As we have all heard in recent years, there are significant concerns from Hesperus-area residents regarding coal mining and local aquifers,” he said. “Hopefully the BLM and OSMRE will listen to these concerns and fully explore the issue. No streamlining is necessary.”
Gina Lotito, GCC Energy’s vice president of energy and sustainability, said in an emailed statement the proposed expansion would not change any requirements with county, state or federal requirements.
“We would follow those requirements as we always have,” she wrote. “GCC wants to continue to be a good neighbor and important business in La Plata and Montezuma counties.”
GCC Energy’s parent company is Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, a multimillion dollar international cement manufacturer based in Chihuahua, Mexico.
In a letter sent to nearby property owners, King II mine manager Chris Dorenkamp said if the expansion is approved, “nothing changes in the way we operate.
“The footprint of surface operations does not change, nor do production or traffic limits. We are still committed to not mine within 600 feet of a dwelling without a waiver from the owner.”
Dorenkamp said GCC Energy has the capability to mine 800,000 to 1.1 million tons of coal a year. However, he said GCC Energy is staffed to mine about 650,000 tons. And, he said GCC Energy is limited by an agreement with La Plata County to maintain truck traffic below 120 trips per day.
Since the company took over the King II mine, it has averaged about 700,000 tons of coal per year, which is used mainly for cement production. But increasingly, production has waned as the industry takes a downturn.
In 2018, GCC Energy produced about 614,700 tons of coal.